by Father James Rodriguez
Back in October, on a sunny Sunday morning, I had a very moving and beautiful experience of grace. I was in Chicago with one of my brothers-in-law, running in the marathon. I began running with him and my sisters around 10 years ago, and have found it to be a very rewarding habit that has helped me in many ways to maintain my mental and physical health, while also providing good ‘alone time’ with God. I can’t overstate the spiritual dimension of running, in which one becomes keenly aware of God’s call to perseverance and trust; it’s a metaphor for life, with its many peaks and valleys. In one such moment, somewhere around mile 7, I noticed a familiar and friendly face. On the ground in front of me was a holy card with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
It took me a moment to register this unexpected encounter, and I had to double back to pick up the card — I couldn’t just leave it there. On the back of the card was a name — Susana Marie Barela — and underneath her name was a short prayer and the name of a funeral home. I carried that card, or rather it carried me, through the next 19 miles. I prayed for Susana and her family (and invite you to take a moment and do the same). When I got home to New York, I sent an e-mail to the funeral home, in Arizona of all places. Soon after, I received a very gracious response. They agreed to contact the family once I mailed back the card, stained with Chicago grit and Gatorade, along with a Mass card for Susana. I thanked God for the experience.
Little did I know that there was more to come. I received two e-mails from the woman’s family. The first came from her daughter, who had been running in the marathon ahead of me and accidentally dropped the reminder of her beloved mother. She is a detective in her local police department and beautifully wrote that my gesture — so simple and small — helped restore her faith in humanity after what she and so many other first responders see on a regular basis. She also sent along a picture of her mother glowing with pride for her heroic daughter. The next e-mail came from the runner’s niece, another lovely expression of gratitude from across the country. All three of us found inspiration in the whole encounter, a moment of deep grace in which God took a family from one corner of this country and linked them to a simple parish priest from another. We raced through the streets of Chicago totally unaware of the beautiful bond the Holy Spirit was forming between us.
That is the story so far. Throughout my life, I’ve learned that some of our most beautiful experiences are the ones we least expect. God gives us gifts that are so much better than what we could possibly ask for, and as His sons and daughters, we can open our hands and receive in gratitude. The greatest of these gifts bring us together every Sunday, in the meal and sacrifice that transcends language, culture, distance, and time. It is an offering whose very name is thanksgiving. In the Eucharist, we truly are the universal family of God.
Father James Rodriguez is the administrator of St. Rose of Lima parish in Rockaway Beach.